»I don’t mistrust reality of which I hardly know anything. I just mistrust the picture of it that our senses deliver.«

Gerhard Richter

Blog Building of the Week

Disposable Books

A library like a mountain lets the sun shine in...

  • MVRDV′s “Book Mountain” is situated directly on the old market square of the small Dutch town of Spijkenisse. (Image: Ben ter Mull / flickr) 1 / 14  MVRDV′s “Book Mountain” is situated directly on the old market square of the small Dutch town of Spijkenisse. (Image: Ben ter Mull / flickr)
  • The site plan shows center-left the sheer scale of the new library′s footprint compared with that of the church to the right. (Image: MVRDV) 2 / 14  The site plan shows center-left the sheer scale of the new library′s footprint compared with that of the church to the right. (Image: MVRDV)
  • The main façade of the library is fully glazed: sometimes reflecting the sky, sometimes revealing its contents to the street. (Photo: Jeroen Musch © MVRDV) 3 / 14  The main façade of the library is fully glazed: sometimes reflecting the sky, sometimes revealing its contents to the street. (Photo: Jeroen Musch © MVRDV)
  • A model showing the library′s simple barn-like structure. (Model: MVRDV) 4 / 14  A model showing the library′s simple barn-like structure. (Model: MVRDV)
  • The light-filled interior space with the “book mountain” structure at its center, rising up like a pyramid. (Photo: Jeroen Musch © MVRDV) 5 / 14  The light-filled interior space with the “book mountain” structure at its center, rising up like a pyramid. (Photo: Jeroen Musch © MVRDV)
  • The terraced spaces give access to the books. (Photo: Jeroen Musch © MVRDV) 6 / 14  The terraced spaces give access to the books. (Photo: Jeroen Musch © MVRDV)
  • The section reveals the service rooms contained within the mountain′s structure. (Image: MVRDV) 7 / 14  The section reveals the service rooms contained within the mountain′s structure. (Image: MVRDV)
  • Once you′ve reached the top, a light-drenched reading deck awaits. (Photo: Jeroen Musch © MVRDV) 8 / 14  Once you′ve reached the top, a light-drenched reading deck awaits. (Photo: Jeroen Musch © MVRDV)
  • In case you are wondering how the books resist the light: they don′t. But the typical library book doesn‘t get older than four years anyway, making a glass roof the logical choice. (Photo: Jeroen Musch © MVRDV) 9 / 14  In case you are wondering how the books resist the light: they don′t. But the typical library book doesn‘t get older than four years anyway, making a glass roof the logical choice. (Photo: Jeroen Musch © MVRDV)
  • Knowing this, this ziggurat really gets a creepy feeling of being a tomb for slowly dying books, no? (Photo: Jeroen Musch © MVRDV) 10 / 14  Knowing this, this ziggurat really gets a creepy feeling of being a tomb for slowly dying books, no? (Photo: Jeroen Musch © MVRDV)
  • The library is also part of a new housing development – or is it the other way ′round? (Photo: Jeroen Musch © MVRDV) 11 / 14  The library is also part of a new housing development – or is it the other way ′round? (Photo: Jeroen Musch © MVRDV)
  • Rendering of the whole new development of library and housing. (Image: www.mooiwonenspijkenisse.nl) 12 / 14  Rendering of the whole new development of library and housing. (Image: www.mooiwonenspijkenisse.nl)
  • Elevation of new housing and library, showing the relative scales of the blocks. (Image: MVRDV) 13 / 14  Elevation of new housing and library, showing the relative scales of the blocks. (Image: MVRDV)
  • ...and at night, the library′s glass facade reveals the cultural treasures inside, being a gleaming beacon of culture in Spijkenisse. Good night, and good luck. (Photo: Jeroen Musch © MVRDV) 14 / 14  ...and at night, the library′s glass facade reveals the cultural treasures inside, being a gleaming beacon of culture in Spijkenisse. Good night, and good luck. (Photo: Jeroen Musch © MVRDV)

MVRDV′s recent library design references a lot of things – barns, mountains, ideas of disposability – none of them usually associated with a stereotypic dusty repository of books. Chris Luth ponders their design process and motives.

Question: How to design a contemporary library on the market square of Spijkenisse, an ancient town of farmers and fishermen, right across from the town's medieval church?

This question does not seem to have been MVRDV’s main concern in designing what they called the “Book Mountain.”

Yet if the architects were wondering how to create an iconic building with a typological twist, they have succeeded remarkably well. The library was elevated to the top of a ziggurat of stacked secondary programs. After learning that the daily wear and tear of books results in an average life span of only four years – less than the detrimental effect that direct sunlight would allow for – the library was also boldly covered with a large glass roof.

The result is a spectacular public interior that overlooks, and can be seen from, the market square. It “advertises its books,” as the architects say. And its barn-shaped roof supposedly refers to the town’s agricultural past.

But why design a glass barn opposite the town’s medieval church? Why make such an important public building that is devoted to reading, refer to the normally peripherally-located storage of crops and housing of livestock?

It appears that the architects were not convinced of this comparison either and simply saw it as an easily identifiable symbol with immediate iconic appeal. Tellingly, they called it the Book Mountain, not the Book Barn.

More importantly, when entering the library, nothing reminds one of the craftsmanship and sensual qualities of pre-industrial production: the associated rich architectural detail, the soft muted light, and the material tactility with its own smells and sounds, are missing. Indeed, nothing invites one to quietly take up a book, gently feel its weight, carefully turn over the cover, let one’s hand feel the paper’s texture and read the first pages in a private corner.

There are no private corners. Instead, you are welcomed by thick anthracite bookshelves and accompanying furniture made of recycled plastic, and by brick-printed elevator doors.

A cynic might argue that this de-contextualized detailing and superficial iconic reference actually fits not only the disposable books, but also the generic local context that Spijkenisse was transformed into after becoming a New Town in the 1960s. The demolition of the previous library in favor of more shops only attests to this logic.

MVRDV won this library competition for “disposable” books in 2003. If the competition had been held only a decade later, books might have been dispensed with altogether.

Last January, in the Texan city of San Antonio, the United States’ first completely digital, bookless library was announced. When one of the project organizers, a county judge, was asked what it would look like, he referred to another icon, also devoid of its agricultural roots, when stating: “Go into an Apple store.”

– Chris Luth, Rotterdam

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